The Tokyo Joint: Air China Beijing-Tokyo Narita, B777-200 Economy Class

Beijing Capital Airport Terminal 3. Amazing in pictures, even more impressive in reality.

Throughout the terminal, under the sky-high canopy of the dragon scale roof, the sense of space is endlessly immense, stretching out as far as the eye can see. You’re greeted with a sense of awe that’s certainly fitting of the world’s most populous nation, a sense that greatness isn’t achieved by one, but by the joined efforts of many. This is after all, the world’s second largest airport terminal by floor area. Spanning nearly four kilometres long, and predominantly glass-clad, it therefore isn’t surprising that in the -2 degree Centigrade weather, heaters are positively ineffectual. Despite standing in the middle of the building, I could still see my breath condense, which was a very interesting experience. Compared to my visit to a very comfortably warm Terminal 2 just three months earlier, this mega structure felt cold, literally and metaphorically.

With my incoming flight late, my connections became very tight, and there was very little time to explore the terminal. The Chinese immigration officers at the transfer counters who waved me through were, like the weather, cold and unfeeling but broke the ice when they noticed that I had been visiting their country for the past nine months in three-month intervals, smiled and wished me a pleasant journey. Then you zip one floor below for another passport check and security, which was really getting me anxious as it was close to boarding time. Once cleared, you’re thrust into the middle of a huge concourse, which houses all the concessions, surrounded by four long spokes housing the gates. With my flight flashing “boarding”, I had no time to cure my hunger pangs, and instead, hiked to my gate.

This picture could be a glimpse of history. United Airlines’ “shades of blue” (the best in my opinion) has been retired as it completes it merger with Continental Airlines using the latter’s colors while American Airlines is on the threat of being merged with US Airways, a move that’ll definitely see a change to American’s iconic livery.

Note the China Southern A380 in the foreground awaiting at Terminal 2’s international gate awaiting its only “international” flight to Hong Kong in the afternoon.

The Boeing 747 is a dying breed and will cease passenger service before the decade is up. The next iteration of the 747 however, has not been as popular as the A380. Air China will be one of the few to operate the Boeing 748i. This example here, is a Combi.

Aside from Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines is Beijing’s most frequent Southeast Asian carrier.

My plane to Tokyo!

Air China CA 925
Beijing Capital – Tokyo Narita
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Schedule: 0910h – 1340h
Actual Schedule: 0930h – 1400h
Load Factor: 30%
Seat: 35A

When I saw that my aircraft would be operated by an aircraft in a special livery, I was elated. The special theme commemorates Air China’s relaunch of its International First and Business Class, aptly renamed Forbidden Pavilion and Capital Pavilion – lovely names, but aren’t used in practice in Mandarin or English by the airline. Assuming that everyone had already boarded since the gate waiting area was completely empty, I panicked and quickly boarded. To my utter surprise, the aircraft was sparsely filled. I was seated with a young American businessman – who had one of the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen on a guy – was flying to Tokyo to catch a connection on United Airlines to Houston, and we spoke a bit before he moved. It didn’t make sense for us to sit beside each other in a mostly empty aircraft anyways.

The crew aboard was a lot friendlier, but it was difficult to tell if they were Japanese or Chinese because the younger crew spoke always spoke Japanese first, before trying in Mandarin and subsequently English. Whichever nation they’re from, their service standards were top-notch, perhaps even better than some of the five-star carriers I’ve flown. They engaged each and every single passenger, myself included, in conversation, and besides the countless drink runs, they’d occasionally come out and offer passengers more drinks without any prompt from the passengers. Things turned up a notch when a Hispanic passenger asked for beer, which prompted everyone into a “me too” moment. As the flight progressed, the crew during their spontaneous unrequested drink runs, would come down with more beer. Flying couldn’t be more enjoyable! Catering out of Beijing is said to be better than average, and I was honestly surprised by the quality. The braised beef served with Japanese rice was impeccable, and so was the smoked duck salad and the peach. Instead of a usual butter roll, a high quality red bean bun was served. If served in courses, and presented properly, it could well have been a meal worthy of Business Class.

Knowing that you could recline and relax without worrying that you’ll make your fellow passengers uncomfortable, having two seats to yourself, and the beer helped me catch up on some much-needed rest. I also decided I should probably plan where I wanted to go later in Tokyo, and the scenery outside provided me all the activities I needed. The routing itself is pretty interesting because a straight-line distance would’ve taken us over North Korea, which I thought we would, since China has a working relationship with the rogue nation. However, we avoided North Korean airspace completely, so we ended up flying Tianjin-Qingdao-Seoul-Pohang-Kyoto-Nagoya-Tokyo.

The fairly empty cabin.

Drinks aplenty.

Delicious meal. Note the full can of beer!

Narita’s well-known for its “difficult” landings, and the airport was determined to give us the “Narita welcome”. Despite all the jumps, jerks and all, I was distracted by the coastal area which we were circling over. From the air, a huge orange strip of land separated the sea and civilization, undulating presumably with the geology as far as the eye can see. The window passengers, which was like, everyone aboard, all moved to catch their first glimpse of Japan, immediately realized what that undulating orange strip between the sea and civilization was. Chills went down my spine. It’s a feeling that really brings you back down to Earth.

Snow covered Japan.

Landing, was also another experience. It wasn’t until we flew over a piece of private land that I realized that we had landed on 16L/34R. This runway, opened in time for the FIFA World Cup in Korea and Japan, has been the subject of fierce controversy and even terrorism that still continues to this day, and is the reason why the runway is interrupted two-quarters along the route. In Japan, private land is exclusive to the owner, and cannot under any circumstances, be taken away by the government without consent. When expanding Haneda was out the question, the Japanese authorities sited the new airport in the middle of farmland where pollution wouldn’t be an issue, and objection would be minimal, theoretically. It was the sixties, barely two decades after the Americans occupied Japan. The socialist movement, made mostly of students, and people with anti-American sentiments, took advantage of the local farmers who refused to give up their land, began terror attacks – afraid of extended American occupation and the spread of capitalism. Protests, riots and sabotage continued even after the first terminal building opened, and continue through to today, albeit more discreet. The fences around Narita resemble those of a prison, with manned watch towers still looking out for any potential disturbances.

Going around the farm. Note the high fences.

I however, had more pressing matters. Less than twenty-four hours before, I had considered the possibility that my phone would be unusable in Japan. With little knowledge on the differences between quart-band phones, GSM and CDMA networks, it was not an issue that was serious enough to pursue. When my phone failed to connect to NTT DoCoMo, KDDI or SoftBank, I began to panic, and began looking for options. SoftBank had phone rentals, but it was essentially a local line so international calls would’ve been expensive, and to be honest, I needed 3G more than the ability to call or text. KDDI were nice, but couldn’t do anything helpful since they didn’t carry any license to handle Apple phones, nor could do they provide anything international beyond a calling card. They did however, offer the best advice, telling me to go to Akihabara to jailbreak my iPhone so I could unofficially use the CDMA network, which I did consider going to.

Clearing my head, I decided to head to town.

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